Digitalized paths arrive at green solutions

Feb. 23, 2023
Sustainability maxi-series 2023—Day 8—Hargrove Controls & Automation tailors automation and controls to gradually transition clients to sustainability

Because there are so many definitions and types of sustainability, there are just as many ways to achieve it. This includes using the latest networking, cloud computing, data analytics and other digitalized technologies, which can simplify sustainability and make sustainability much easier for users to approach and implement.

“Sustainability can start with efficiency and making more Earth-friendly products; move on to minimizing energy consumption and using renewable resources; and handle and repurpose waste streams to close the loop. However, these initiatives can be better optimized with data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), which can find optimal setpoints, predict and prevent downtime, and alert when to shut down or idle equipment,” says Heath Stephens, digitalization leader at Hargrove Controls & Automation, which is headquartered in Mobile, Ala., with offices nationwide. Hargrove is a division of Hargrove Engineers & Constructors and a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). “Now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have made a big difference over the years, but real sustainability doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So, companies, which are in business to make money, need economic incentives to be sustainable, and that’s what we see happening. Some blend ethanol into fuel, others use carbon offsets, some find that it’s cost effective to use tree bark waste to feed their boilers, and many in the power industry are switching from coal to natural gas and renewables.”

Steady wins the race

Because these changes are often sweeping and deeply involved, Chet Barton, process safety leader at Hargrove, reports it’s preferable transition to sustainability gradually and steadily. “Most users, processes and organizations can’t turn on a dime, so they can start by capturing fugitive emissions. And, once there are fewer leaks, they can begin to address other issues,” says Barton. “Many companies feel if they take steps towards sustainability, it will put them at a disadvantage compared to their global competitors. However, sustainability can be a selling point because it garners good will—along with improving efficiency and competitiveness—so investment in it can be recouped later, especially as the overall market gets greener and demand for it increases.”

For instance, Hargrove recently redesigned and rehabbed a plant for Danimer Scientific in Bainbridge, Ga., which makes ultra-biodegradable plastics by using a fermenting process that harvests the product’s resin precursor from microbes that consume vegetable oil. Hargrove did the system integration, implemented batch software, and revamped the plant’s existing DeltaV distributed control system (DCS) from Emerson. Meanwhile, its parent company did the facility design, engineering and construction. The plant’s 4,000 I/O are networked via AS-interface and Foundation Fieldbus protocols. This renovation project took about two years, and started operating last year.

“The first half of this process is life sciences with stainless-steel tanks for growing the microbes, while the second half is separating the polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) plastic from the microbes, and filtering, purifying, and drying it. Finally, it’s sent out as bulk resin for customers to make products,” says Stephens. “This facility previously made dairy byproducts, so some of the vessels could be reused, but new and revised instrument and electrical (I&E) devices, as well as new software were required. The microbes are very sensitive, so they need very precise temperature control, as well as a highly automated, repeatable, and reliable process. Fortunately, this also contributes to the plant’s sustainability because it saves 10-20% on energy and raw materials compared to a less automated process by preventing off-spec batches that can’t be sold.”

Tailoring controls to individual needs

Barton adds that Hargrove has tailored its standard automation and controls package for several other small, green startup companies and others, including:

  • A power company that provides electricity in New York State from solar and wind sources. To implement its greenfield battery storage equipment, Hargrove installed Modicon PLCs to control charge and discharge function, which let the company deliver electricity to users via the regular grid.
  • A lithium battery recycling company in the northeast U.S. that runs a sustainable process for recovering materials from all types of lithium-ion batteries. Hargrove helped design and automate its production process.
  • A specialty alloy products manufacturer with many U.S. sites, which previously ran many manual processes, as well as PLCs, and had high rejection rates and waste. Hargrove automated many of its casting, forging, rolling, forming, cutting and other functions, and further digitalized it by linking it to a cloud-based, artificial intelligence (AI) system- that could help with data analytics.

“We also digitally connected the alloy manufacturer’s operations, upgraded its PLCs, and added Ethernet networking, a process historian, switches and analytics software in the cloud. This lets it gather and analyze information from multiple sites,” adds Stephens. “The historian’s software talks to the PLCs from different suppliers and IBA analytics software running at these formerly separate sites, and delivers it to Noodle.ai analytics software running in the cloud. This coordinated data has allowed the alloy manufacturer to identify several quality issues, determine better parameters, and reduce rejects. For example, they found they could tighten the bandwidth range on an upstream temperature control, which increased efficiency and was more sustainable, too.”

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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